Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Letting Agents - Slight Return

Yep – letting agents again. I’ve written before about these mythical monsters and wondered if I’d been too harsh. Then I thought: what if I’ve been unfortunate, only encountering the worst examples. Somewhere in the solar system, jovial, informative, honest, helpful letting agents must exist. Don’t they?

But the examples I’ve encountered recently have been horrible. They also seem to have gathered up all the properties in all the world in order to control them. Furthermore, some of them are weird.

One company in particular monopolises the flats in one of the best areas, leaving me with little choice: I had to deal with them. But these days prices aren’t too bad (rents really are falling) and so I arranged a viewing via their prickly and officious receptionist.

The apartment block in question was enormous and had been cunningly converted into a maze. I’d been given short notice of a viewing, and called to say I was on my way. The agent greeted me sharply: “I wondered where the hell you were.”
I did call to say I was lost, I said.
“Hmmm…” came her reply.

She looked me up and down with an armour-piercing squint. No small talk, no patter - just a disdainful, frigid absence of words.
“I have the keys,” she said as we approached the flat.
“Good because I don’t.” I joked lamely. Silence and another cyclopean death stare.

I asked about references. She ignored me. I asked about the landlord. More silence. The flat was okay - there was even some storage (yay - cupboards!) which I noticed was packed with half-empty paint tins, which, I was tetchily informed, I’d be obliged to hold on to (“…just in case.”)

I saw another flat. It was furnished bloke-style: matt-black and everything made of what the inventory will refer to as faux leather, with fake designer chairs. It smelled of damp. The wallpaper was peeling off in places; underneath I noticed blackheads of emerging mould.

“Does the roof leak?” I asked, quite reasonably.
“It smells of damp – I think the roof leaks. Would you know anything about that?”
Silence, and another baleful squint.

I asked all questions I’ve learned from previous bad experience to ask, like does the owner have an official buy-to-let mortgage, but there was no reply, just another squint, this time paired with a terrifying sneer. Her face was so contorted by now that she looked like a life-model for Francis Bacon. Tenants who ask awkward, albeit pertinent questions are clearly not wanted round those parts

Another firm imposed complex, arcane rules on tenants, so strict that only the blessed Sir David Attenborough, or another modern saint would suffice. They advertised one flat as ideal for students, but operated a no-students policy. Get out that, if you can… I questioned this, but all the agent said, repeatedly was: “Those are company rules, and rules are rules.”

The thought of meeting letting agents has made me feel sullied by association. Seriously, how can I wrestle free of these vampires? And landlords, why do you associate with them?

Friday, 21 August 2009

What Next?

So here I am again, flat hunting once more, encountering my own bad news. Letting agents really have taken over a massive wedge of the rental sector. There really are too many newbuilds. Yes, prices are falling, but tenants are heading en-masse for the best places, and I am at the end of the queue (I don’t exaggerate, as some readers imagine, and I hate being right.)

Last time, I was lucky: I found Nice Heights and a fair-minded landlord online, miraculously avoiding all the many weirdoes. But as far as my housing timeline goes, it’s been nasty-nice, nasty-nice, alternating between great places with decent owners, before veering off into psychopathic part-time landlords, amateur and incompetent buy-to-letters and harrowing dovecots. What’s next?

Because of this, and despite myself, I am wistful about the idea of owning a home (not property – a home.) But then, if I did I would have found it harder to take advantage of my recent opportunity (and reason for my move.) Even so, I’d like to buy a home when I get there. In my mind, there is no mortgage, no deposit, no chain, no disreputable, tricky estate-agents, no gazumping, no gazundering, no surveys, no being stuck forever with nightmare neighbours. In my reverie, buying is smooth and easy, slippery like a dream.

First up, I’ll paint my home or pay for an interior designer, as years of magnolia have blunted my senses, and to compensate I want lurid emerald walls and vivid, warm colours so it’ll be sunny all the time.

As for furniture, I’ve even been reading up on sofas, and tables, and four-poster beds. It’s so unlike me. Contrast that with some of the stained, lumpy mattresses and cabinets with the doors hanging off I’ve witnessed when renting. There will of course, be insulation (sleeping in woolly socks and a balaclava helmet deflates the spirit) and I’ve been planning a garden (even though I want to live in a flat.)

Dealing with removal companies, and insurance, and being responsible for repairs won’t put me off. But I want to do this in luxury; there are removal firms who actually pack your belongings for you. I expect there’s a firm to float your goods away, and unpack and re-arrange at the other end.

I do appreciate my freedom. I can move at will. But I still want some security, without landlords who wilfully encourage a grim sense of despondency in tenants, who are left wondering: will they renew the tenancy, please let them renew. It’s like trying to sleep on a the edge of a cliff; you can’t rest because of worrying you’ll roll over and fall off.

I try and make the best of renting, but I really need some security and a semblance of control. I want to chose my surroundings, not endure the whims and notions of an owner, some of whom are prone to selling up capriciously, for revenge or just because they can.

So that’s settled, then. All I need is to be resolute and conjure up a hulking great deposit. That’s all.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Hug A Landlord

According to some readers, I have a bad attitude. People see me as an unreasonable, no holds-barred landlord loather, spoiling for a fight. Nothing could be further from the truth: all I want is a quiet life.

When I moved in, ‘Dave,’ my current landlord, didn’t demand exhaustive references, but then, I get no guarantees from him. Thankfully, he’s been helpful, understanding, realistic, reliable and tolerant. I do my utmost to be the same. Unfortunately, I have been enduring a complex and protracted nightmare with my bank much like a scene from the film ‘Brazil’, which involved them apparently losing or deleting my account. I was late paying my rent, which is dreadful.

Delaying payment requires delicately negotiations, balancing the need to collect money with the problems the tenant faces. This latest batch of new landlords who bought in the boom-time are learning that when renters run up arrears, being heavy can be counterproductive. If someone has lost their job, and is claiming benefits, why not be reasonable and wait. They might have been your dream tenant until then, so why lose them? In return, tenants might accept that landlords can’t always come racing over at the drip of a tap.

Of course, some tenants are wilfully dishonest, or presume that all landlords are rich, when usually they are barely covering their costs, especially at the moment. A property owning friend had tenants who ran away to Australia owing three months money. He only just managed to survive.

I’ve written previously about the evil that bad landlords do, but ‘Dave’ has been a star. I paid the backlog as soon as possible, and wouldn’t dream of doing a runner. He’s new to this, and to those in a similar situation, I offer this advice: there will, at some point, be a gap between tenants, a late payment, or even renters who can’t or will not pay. You need an amount put by to cover unexpected situations. Tenants pay in advance, and landlords have the deposit, so in those rare cases when rent is late/goes awol, you should never be owed more than a month. But to avert disaster, you need something in reserve.

Landlords can be excellent – as in actively pleasant and helpful, or simply okay – as in quiet and absent. ‘Emily’ has commented here about her landlord who, when her toddler scribbled on the wall, shrugged and said: “It’s okay – I can paint over it when you leave.” He didn’t rub his hands with glee at the chance to claim on insurance for redecoration while simultaneously docking money from her deposit.

‘Dave,’ the owner of my Nice Heights flat has been reasonable beyond the call of human tolerance, and A in Glasgow was lovely too. It’s not always necessary, or even wise to seek possession at the first hint of late rent. Tenants, if you can wait for a non-essential repair, then try and be reasonable. Remember: we’re both human and we need each other, so if you can, be nice.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Marching Into The Studentland

I remember student halls of residence fondly for torrential water fights, utilitarian fittings and superhuman livers. Nowadays however halls are positively bleak. They are also expensive. A friend’s student flat was made of bare cinder blocks and I’ve seen plans for another which is basically a random pile of Portacabins.

Student flats are so small I wonder if it’s all some kind of elaborate joke. There’s one narrow single bed - as you know, students are famously celibate for religious reasons - a tiny en-suite shower room, a desk, and well, that’s it. What about storing books, linen, clothes, and other general stuff?

Some private landlords are heroes, but the worst examples treat students with outright disdain. Most scholars are young and excited to be living independently for the first time. They are optimistic and accept the shabby state of the property, although a broken heater in September seems more important when December comes.

Some houses are so bad you’d think the Young Ones was a documentary. Owners rent out hovels, knowing they won’t make get as much money, but won’t have to do any repairs. They don’t reckon on parents. Do not mess with articulate, protective, litigious parents. They are fierce.

Rigsby-ite owners assume they can cheat and fleece students, ignoring the Deposit Protection Scheme or docking money for minor misdemeanours. One landlord even tried to charge a back-dated retainer on a house we’d moved into in the autumn. Nice try.

Neighbours argue that students destroy their community, having moved for the old style houses or peace and quiet, not parties, gigs and poster sales. Students, meanwhile counter that they need to live somewhere.

It’s not their fault, but students are a beacon for crime. Criminals think they own computers, drugs, loads of lovely cash and consumer items, and landlords can put burglar alarms low down on the list of importance.

Studentland is quiet in May (exams) but noisy in June (parties!) Outside of term time, it’s a wasteland. One friend watched the value of his home tumble, and then the accompanying theft and mugging rates made the streets a no-go. He was beaten up on his own doorstep, and moved away.

Buses are so plentiful that diesel smog chokes your lungs and obstructs the view. Then come July they all migrate in herds like Wildebeest back to the depot, where they stay grazing until September. Mind you, for those no longer in the first flush of youth, it’s a compliment to be asked at the bus-stop what course you are on.

Student zones are coalmine canaries, indicating where the next up and coming area will be, usually full of large cheap family homes, unrenovated, with intact original features (and a smell of stale weed and pizzas).

One neighbourhood in Edinburgh campaigned against the transient nature of its student population, which they claimed discouraged any sense of community. The students offered to organise a street party for the grumpy neighbours, who were long past the stage of swigging BOGOF Frascati from the bottle with a fag end bobbing about, but it’s the thought that counts.

Friday, 7 August 2009

A Potential Death Trap

Whenever I write about bad landlords, the good landlords get angry. They pout with indignation and claim to be doing a great job, while assuming that I am exaggerating, rabble-rousing or lying. They are, they insist tormented to the edge of ruin: “Tenants trashed my precious flat,” they say “…and then they did a runner!”

Sorry; it’s not the same at all. Bad landlords are dangerous, but you probably think that’s over the top.

I once lived in shared flat where the landlord’s daughter was a fellow tenant, so you’d think we’d be treated well. Not a bit of it.

We told the owner that the ancient combi boiler was temperamental and that we could smell gas, but he just sneered, stating - somewhat oddly, I think you’ll agree:
“Don’t come that communist nonsense with me – all property is theft and rubbish like that. And don’t try and boss me around.”
“I’m hardly stirring up a revolution,” I replied. “But that boiler’s dangerous. Would you please fix it?”

He ignored me, so I energised him with an enormous estimate from a registered repair firm. Eventually, he sent round his friend, a gas-installer, who took one look at the appliance and turned white with rage.
“You stupid bastard!” he shouted down the phone. “Get your arse round here right now and you’d better bring the money for a new heater! It could blow up any minute! It’s like a bloody bomb!”

Outraged, he continued: “Your daughter lives here! For crying out loud, what’s wrong with you?”
The landlord was unrepentant, and frankly, a bit miffed. I left soon after.

Landlords do their worst in ramshackle shared houses, where tenants move in and out like renting yo-yos. In one HMO, the ancient shower broke; the landlord agreed to replace it, but only after accusing us of “....being heavy with him, when he’d been nice to us.”
Being nice, by the way, involved him once turning up late at night expecting “…coffee.”

To our dismay some ‘cousins’ arrived. They let themselves in unannounced with a spare key, and swaggered around, saying things like: “Hey – ladies, time to paaarrrtay!” After clocking our surly expressions they left in record time, but at least we had a new shower.

Some time later I heard a scream - my terrified housemate had suffered a serious electric shock, and was genuinely lucky to be alive.

The sodden plaster had been partly washed away, exposing bare wires embedded haphazardly in the wall. We called Health and Safety, who confronted the landlord, ordering him to get it sorted, or else.

His response was petulant and unapologetic:
“…you know what girls are like,” he said. “Always nagging and whining.”
The word bitch was used.

As you might have realised by now, I am writing this post in anger. Here’s why. Thanks to the excellent Nearly Legal (see blog roll) for alerting me to this case from Cornwall. To any landlords out there who are feeling betrayed by calls for regulation, please remember this: bad landlords are a minority, but owners can be lazy, negligent, callous, defiant and stupid. The worst landlord is a killer landlord. In a bad way.

Report by The Residential Landlords Association: “A young mother was electrocuted by bathroom taps at a rental home. The coroner said he found it inexplicable that whilst gas safety checks and annual gas safety certificates are a specific legal requirement, electrical checks are not. He called it a loophole.

The woman, Thirza Whittall, 33, was found by her five-year-old daughter Millie. The young mother died instantly when she was hit by 175 volts when running the bath.

Heartbreakingly, the little girl said a prayer over her dead mother’s body before taking her two-year-old brother, George, out of his cot, locking up the house, and walking down the street into a shop to get help.

A series of electrical problems had combined to make the bathroom a death trap, the inquest heard. Mrs Whittall was electrocuted after she part-filled the bath with water and touched the taps with wet hands.

The home had not been professionally rewired or inspected electrically for nearly 30 years. The landlady, Hilary Thompson, had it rewired in 1981, and it had then been checked by her husband. Since Mrs Whittall’s death, the property has been rewired, at a cost of £4,000.

Mr Whittall, a builder, said: “I remain deeply concerned that there is a gap in the legislation which permitted this incident to occur and which puts others at risk. “Whilst landlords of rented properties are obliged to provide an annual gas safety certificate, no such regulation applies in relation to electrical wiring in rented properties.

“As we have learnt to our cost, a fault in an electrical installation is every bit as dangerous as a faulty gas supply.”

The Electrical Safety Council, a charity, is now calling for basic checks to be carried out on rental homes and has published a new guide – the Landlords’ Guide to Electrical Safety.”

Anyone out there still think I’m being unfair?

Monday, 3 August 2009

Love In The Time Of The Cubicle

Relocating to another city is a precarious time for tenants. When I was last in that tricky situation, I alternated between sofa-surfing and staying in a friend’s vacant flat, which gave me time to view homes at my leisure, no pressure to accept a place, any place. Occasionally though, my tenuous chain of accommodation broke and I moved to a hostel.

I’d rather have been snug in my temporary flat, but the hostel was cheap and less awkward than sofa surfing. In the common-room, an American tourist, who pronounced Cardiff as “Carr-deef,” announced: “You must hate us, but I’m a Democrat.”
“What is this, please?” wondered a Slovakian guest, bemused by The Chuckle Brothers, as are we all.

Other residents were self-employed business travellers. They paid their own expenses - aloof but not too proud to book what was a step down from a budget hotel.

Eventually I found a flat. My references were great and I was ready to move with a deposit and rent in advance. I called, arranging to collect the keys.
The landlord said: “…um, yeah. Sorry. A different girl moved in this morning. I think my other flat’s more you.”
I asked why.
“It’s by the river – it’s quite…plush.”
But it’s too dear, I said.
“Oh come on - you can afford it. I can tell.”

I was supposed to be moving in next morning, so I was homeless. Frantically I phoned around, but everywhere was full or else people were away. In desperation, I found a rundown back-packers’ hostel, which was better than the pavement.
The owner said: “Towel hire is 50p.”

The other guests were four uncharacteristically snotty Aussie backpackers, and a group from Bangladesh, attending a student conference. In the morning, the queue for the shower was ridiculous. I waited my turn tutting grumpily because two people were hogging the bathroom.

I went for a brew. When I returned they were still showering. Their fellow delegate said: “I am so very sorry; please to take my place in the line.”

His companions continued their seemingly endless shower. Every now and again they both turned off the water, standing in silence before restarting the weak spray. Judging by some clothes left on the floor, one was male, while the owner of the electric blue salwar kameez was female. It was cold outside, and both owned several layers of shrunken grey wool.

We were all going to be late. An irate Aussie rattled the thin partition. I asked their friend: “Can you make them hurry up?”
He smiled awkwardly, explaining. “They are in love, you see.”
The couple showered on, whispering softly, and affectionately.

I realised what was happening. The showering lovers were devout Muslims, and had never been alone together. Back home, even sitting next to each other was forbidden.

So in a frosty, foreign bathroom, an adoring couple lingered beneath a gentle cascade of warm water, naked but separated by opaque plastic shower cubicles, passing scented soap through a narrow gap below the screens, fingers brushing, close for the first time, oblivious to the strangers hammering on the door.